Monday, December 31, 2018

Cookie Therapy

I actually wrote this essay nearly ten years ago, and it's included in a couple of my books. The teenager in the story has become "all grown up" and life, as it always does, has brought many changes! But this has always been one of my favorites, and so I'm sharing it here again. Go make some cookies!

From a distance, I didn’t have much to complain about.  I was stretched out on one end of a comfy recliner sofa, cat curled up behind me on the bay window sill, new car in the garage, tummy full from dinner, good job, good friends, solid roof over my head, you know the drill.  And then, despite the doors and windows and tight screens…the past crept in.  

My youngest son sat on the far edge of the recliner, the golden glow of the floor lamp falling on him as he read.  The television was on, and he was surrounded by books and folders, pens and papers.  He nestled in, intently digging in to the first semester of his junior year.  The biggest change for him this year is that now he’s driving himself to school.

They say—whoever “they” are—that your past often comes back to haunt you when your children turn the same age that you were when life sideswiped you and left you careening down a different path than the one you knew the week before.

This was my “caboose” baby, the last of the lot, sitting here studying, blissfully unaware at the age of sixteen of his mother’s sudden and melancholy trip down memory lane.  When his siblings were older and hit that milestone, I was too busy to notice.  One, then another, then another turned sixteen, and I kept the plates spinning in the air with little time for reflection.  Soccer games, tennis meets, football helmets, potluck dinners, practices, homework, ear infections, summer camps, tests, prom dress shopping, family vacations at the shore.  Introspection…who had the time?

I did now. 

Whatever had passed for “normal” as I was growing up in Chicago—traffic noise, Catholic school uniforms in various plaids, city bus schedules, homework, science fairs, French club, knowing that  the bed you went to sleep in would still be there a month later—went out the window when I was sixteen.  I came home from a six-week study trip to Europe with my high school history teacher and a busload of classmates between sophomore and junior year to find that my parents had gone off the reservation and moved to an abandoned farm in northern Wisconsin,  property they had bought a few years earlier “as an investment.”   I don’t remember moving, I don’t remember leaving the city, I don’t remember arriving at the farm.  But somehow, I was just there.

The nearest town was two miles away, with a population of 146.  I remember a feed mill, a tiny post office, a softball field, a church.  It probably had a bar or two, but we didn’t mingle much.  The red brick house was missing a front porch and had no indoor plumbing except for a kitchen sink.  The place hadn’t been lived in for years, and it appeared that the window on the north side of the kitchen had once served as a garbage chute into the yard.  They bought two calves and a pony before we built fences.  We spent a lot of time chasing this trio back to the barn. 

They ordered a couple of dozen chicks from the feed mill, and we raised a flock of  Leghorn hens and a pair of roosters.  In summer, two of the hens—never say these birds weren’t smart—casually loitered like delinquents near the kitchen door and dashed in when it opened to steal food from the dog’s dish.  Occasionally they made it as far as the butter dish on the kitchen table before they were scooped up and unceremoniously tossed back outside, fluffing their feathers in indignation.  When the weather turned colder, the chickens moved from the coop into the barn with the cow and the horses.  When it got really cold and the points of their red combs started to turn black with frostbite, the chickens moved into the basement. 

With a hundred untilled acres at our disposal and a father who grew up in a small farming village, we cut hay with a scythe and turned it over with a pitchfork.  I put a flat tire on the three-quarter ton pickup when I inartfully tried to back it up the ramp to the top of the barn and steered a little too close to the edge.  The wheel rim cut into the soft rubber, and the tire went flat.  We finally started buying hay in bales. 

When the water pipes froze in the barn in winter, watering the animals started with filling five gallon pails of water in the basement of the house, then navigating the slippery, snow-covered slope downward from the house, trying not to slosh.  The menagerie grew in fits and starts—geese, ducks, a pig, a horse, a Guernsey cow named “Queenie.”  She had long, curvy horns that scared me to death.  We bought a calf at an auction and brought her home in the back seat of the 1973 yellow Matador.  We called her “Daisy.”  She didn’t live all that long.  I learned to milk the cow by hand the day she arrived, bucket between my knees.  We strained the milk through cheesecloth right into glass grape juice bottles and then into the fridge. 

I managed to finish another year of high school through all the chaos, and then graduated at the end of my junior year.  Stayed on the farm for another year, working occasionally, shoveling mountains of manure, and baking a lot.  Pound cakes, layer cakes, white bread, wheat bread, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon loaves with creamy white frosting.  I kneaded the yeast dough to satiny, elastic balls on the wooden kitchen table, the ebb and flow of the rhythm soothing in the midst of all other hardships.  I tried my hand at making raised donuts, frying them in hot goose grease (yes, those geese) and then rolling them in sugar.   They didn’t taste bad.

Time passed.  I eventually made my way to college, got a degree, got married, started a family.  And kept on baking.  I’m from that generation that remembers all those Poppin’ Fresh Pillsbury Dough Boy commercials and can still sing the jingle, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven, and Pillsbury says it best!”  And I still thoroughly believe that a little home bakery can make just about anything better. 

As the kids grew, I put this mantra into practice often.  Left with an hour before the school bus dropped them off, I would survey the clutter and weigh my options.  I could straighten up the living room before they walked in, sure that any superficial neatness would begin to naturally unravel as soon as the front door opened, or I could reach for the chocolate chips.  It was a no brainer.  Nothing could compare to the sound of the front door opening, a footfall or two and the “thunk” of a school bag hitting the floor, then a tiny pause followed by the rapturous exclamation, “Oooooooh, you made COOKIES!!

Back in the present, after a few days of brooding, I knew it was definitely cookie time.  I got out the hand mixer, the chocolate chips, the butter, the vanilla, the eggs.  Someone gave me an expensive, heavy KitchenAid Mixmaster once, a standing appliance that could perfectly blend all the ingredients for me while I saved time elsewhere in the kitchen.  I used it twice, then moved it permanently to the basement.  I find a primitive, tactile joy in pushing the ingredients around in the bowl, watching the raw materials blend and swirl and transform in stages into the finished product, texture and color changing as each egg or square of melted chocolate or cup of sugar is factored in and combined into the whole.  Not unlike building a sand castle, or driving a bulldozer on a construction site, measuring your progress by the way the mound of dirt you’re pushing around changes shape.  If you could operate it by remote control, well, where’s the fun in that?

I mixed, I scraped, I cheated and ate the dough raw from the bowl.  I dropped spoonfuls of chocolate-chip-laden dough on cookie sheets and watched them zealously as they baked, whisking them out of the oven precisely when their edges turned light brown and their crowns started to look slightly crisp.  My son cruised through the kitchen, and began to graze while they were still warm.   I divided up the rest into plastic storage containers—some for us, the rest for the older two I was planning to see the next day. 

I picked up the college kids, took them out to lunch, visited, caught up on school and life, went shopping.  Brought out the home-baked offerings, love sealed in a square  Ziploc container.  Again, that familiar moment of recognition, that happy “Oooooooh, you made COOKIES!!

I feel better already.

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